Kawaii Culture Didn’t Exist at the Beginning of the Modern Age?! – The “Kawaii 2.0” Theory Vol. 3

近代の始まりに「かわいい」文化はなかった!? ——「かわいい2.0」論(3)
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Kawaii Culture Didn’t Exist at the Beginning of the Modern Age?!  – The “Kawaii 2.0” Theory Vol. 3

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How exactly did the concept of “kawaii” come about? Last volume we searched for its origins. Apparently it was an older form of the world “utsukushi”. It meant “to adore small or childish things” and from there, for example, the story of Kaguya-Hime, or the Moon Princess, was born. We also discussed how the Moon Princess became the original base for Pokemon or other miniaturized “kawaii” culture characters today. But when exactly did this culture begin to blossom? That’s exactly what we want to ask in this volume. So how long did we have to wait until “kawaii” culture finally blossomed?

Anime about "Kaguyahime" story by Studio Guibli

Anime about “Kaguyahime” story by Studio Ghibli

Although the word “kawaii” was included in the positive meaning of words like “utsukushi”, “to admire small and childish things”, it evolved from negative words like “kaohayushi”, meaning “so pitiable one can’t stand it”. Then sometime around the 19th Century, the word started being used in almost the same way we use it today.

However “kawaii” didn’t soon become a facet of Japanese culture on its own. At the beginning of the modern age there was no “kawaii culture”. I feel rather confident saying this.

It had to do with the concept of “girls”, and is deeply entwined with the culture they created. What I’m saying is that “kawaii” culture was born through the “girls” from each period in history. A “girl” is born. The “girl” concept lies somewhere in the framework of a “child” and can be captured. What exactly is a “child”, though? Most of us would probably reply that a child is “a human born that has yet to become an adult”. However, at the beginning of modern times a child wasn’t viewed that way. The way we view children now was established after that.

According to the idea of French historian Philippe Aries, prior to the 17th century, children were viewed as “small adults”. As “small adults”, they were seen as a weaker presence that could not care or fend for themselves. After they had matured to a certain extent and were able to take care themselves and others around them, they were regarded as “young adults”. And so, their play and work was in the same place as other adults, and they were made to experience the same things. “Small adults” and “young adults” began to be described to as “children” or “childhood” through the creation of the modern concept of family and school. In short, education became a must within the institutions of family and school, and the thought that their existence as children should be protected was born. That is to say roughly that, before the modern era, until they became full-fledged adults that children spent their time maturing among adults as sort of a training period, and that in contrast following the modern era with the institutions of family and school, the result was that “children” were isolated from people of other ages, and step-by-step were protectively brought up.

Children born in modern times are treated the same as “girls”. For example, according to critic Eiji Otsuka’s idea of a “girl”, since biologically they meant to become mothers, they are protected among the institutions of family and school, they do not need to work, nor participate in social or productive activities, and that in a sense, these girls are held in a “moratorium” period. And thus, in this “moratorium” period she was bound to get caught up in a world of hobbies. As a result, girls formed their own culture, or “girls’ culture”, yet we cannot claim this as “kawaii culture”. So what exactly was this “girls’ culture” that they had created?

At the beginning of the 20th century, girls didn’t work, did not produce anything, only received education, and in this so-called “moratorium” period and read girls’ magazines or girls’ novels that were being serialized at the time, especially ones like Shoujo Gahou (1912 – 1942), Shoujo no Tomo (1908 – 1955), and Shoujo Kurabu (1923 – 1962). Later this transformed in to girl’s comments.







Isn’t this what we could call the “kawaii” culture of today? When we look at it from this angle, we can see parts of the “kawaii” culture that this essay is based on, here and there in “girl’s culture”. But I can’t help but think there’s a difference. Although there isn’t enough time for us to examine the contents of these magazines specifically, Masuko Honda, the so-called expert on “girls’ theory” says that, “girls’ culture” deals with, first of all, “the color, the smell, and sound”. In other words, girls were moved by the colors, smells, and sounds described in the novels they read. Additionally, visual images, like “bows and ruffles”, were symbols of “girl’s culture”, and modern girls seem to prefer things that are frilly like bows and ruffles.

From their Honda says that the sensitivities of modern girls can be summarized in the word “hira hira”, or something that frills or flutters. These frills and flutters aren’t only found among bows and ruffles, but the sensitivities of girls are like that of a dream, where they flutter beyond reality in a dream-like world. In short, girls like things that appear to “flutter”, and while being pushed out in the regular (masculine) world, they’ve made this drifting, called “fluttering”, their hobby.

Of course, Honda’s take on girls is a little narrow. Modern girls not only “flutter”, they “zuka zuka”, or “dive in without hesitation”, like with the Takarazuka Revue. Same as those who played the male roles in the Takarazuka Revue Company, these modern girls also possessed the sensibilities that made them prefer things without restraint. “Hira hira” and “zuka zuka”. Shinji Miyadai, a sociologist, says that when you think of them together, basically modern girls idolize things that are “clean, proper, and beautiful”, and that this was a characteristic of the first “girl’s culture”.

This was, anyhow, different from “kawaii”, or an “adoration of small or childish things”. Because of that, we cannot say that “girl’s culture” is the same as “kawaii” culture. “kawaii” was not born from girlish sensibilities. Its explosive birth had to be put off until the arrival of consumerist society. So in our next volume, I’d like to describe the birth of consumerist society and “kawaii” culture. There we will have finally arrived at the stage where “kawaii” culture could blossom.

Translated by Jamie Koide

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Writer, Book Reviewer. Having the degree of MA. (Japanese Literature) I love Japanese Girl's Popular Music, such as YUKI, Chara, Makoto Kawamoto, and Seiko Oomori.

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